Fractured across a stage in a whir of microphones, cameras, props and screens, Imitating the Dog stage a beautifully cinematic, noir-esque, live graphic novel revisioning of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, The Heart of Darkness. Flipping the story on its head, Heart of Darkness is an adaptation that engages with its source at a multitude of levels, threading between the source text and the world around it, stitching present to past.
In their story, Charlotte Marlow is a Congolese private eye, tasked to journey into darkest Europe – a post second world war wasteland formed loosely around concentration camp economies – to find the mysterious Kurtz, a camp leader gone rogue far up the river Thames. Supplementing the central narrative is a mash-up that includes commentary on the source text from writer, poet and critic Chinua Achebe (who denounced the novel as ‘deplorable and offensive’), Frances Ford Coppola, director of Apocalypse Now, and Franz Stangl, a commandant at Treblinka, among others. There is a lot going on here, layers and layers to engage with. The complexity of adaptation as a dramaturgical process is lain bare before the audience.
Watching Heart of Darkness is at times mesmeric and jaw-dropping, constructed in layers before our eyes. Standing before a white backdrop the performers move cameras, place each other and orchestrate the images that appears overhead, split across three large screens. It is difficult to know where to look, my gaze was always drawn to the screen, the cinematic, the most readily identifiable narrative, yet my curiosity kept pulling me away towards the stage underneath, where we can see the nuts and bolts. Such is the company’s skill in this form, images are rarely indulged and the narrative shifts along quickly. Heart of Darkness is, for the most part, dizzyingly exciting stuff.
Side-stepping the narrative, the company break away to discuss their approach to adaptation with each other, staging arguments about whether the source is inherently racist, while exploring the experience of reading this novel as someone who is black, or approaching it through a feminist lens. These sections are the weakest material, containing hugely interesting content, staged without drama, coming across a little forced. Knowing that the company eventually go on to stage the adaptation – because we’re watching it – these scenes, set “six months earlier,” lack stakes or consequences. Divorced from any sense of character or drama, these crucial discussions that reach to the very heart of what the entire show is about, become academic. These scenes offer the audience new lenses to watch the work through, and to reflect on what we’ve already seen. Such discussions are really vital work, but the presentation only serves to rob this material of its impact.
Imitating the Dog cover a lot of ground, which is commendably ambitions but leaves some material unexplored. The relocation of the novella to a post-WW2 Europe is richly interesting, and the reframing of Nazi concentration camps as the surviving bedrocks for societies is a provocative starting point. Yet in one of the break-away scenes, multiple references are made to ‘Capitalism, in its purest form’ as the driver between the atrocities committed in the Congo and those committed in Europe. This comparison is jarring – and in some ways this feels productive, asking the audience some difficult questions about how western audiences view different genocides, and of the links between imperialism and Nazism – but by departing so quickly from this line of thinking into the next bit of the story, there’s no room to properly engage with it.
Likewise, there are mysterious references to still-existent communities that speak Yiddish, still living in camps, with little in the way of explanation for how this came to pass, posing some quite pressing questions for how this imagined world relates to the real-world history of the holocaust. The argument could certainly be made that this lack of detail mirrors that found in Conrad’s novel and his protagonist’s viewing of the Congo (the so called “heart of Africa”) and the dehumanisation of its people through the lenses of capitalism and imperialism. This line of thought is compelling but feels undeveloped and not properly woven into the narrative.
Given the work has toured to Scotland, one moment stood out. References are made to England, and its imperialist tradition, yet in video segments purported to represent England – a slightly clumsy aside that draws a shaky and vague line between the claimed desire of Brexiteers to “hark back to the past”, the figure of Boris Johnson, and what appears to be drunken brits on holiday – the flag of the Union Jack is displayed prominently, and repeatedly, across the backdrop. England is not the UK and the UK is not England. This is worth drawing attention to, not simply in the interests Scottish representation, but also because Scotland has its own history of imperialism, its own culpabilities, that need to be engaged with both by the people of the Scotland, and of the wider UK. Watching the work in Glasgow, the former hub for the world’s Tobacco trade, highlights these repeated inaccuracies in discussions about the UK and its history, failing to properly account for the role of Scotland within British imperialism.
Upending Conrad’s novella, through such a dramatic reimagining, is a fascinating premise, which throws up lots of problems for the company to work through, asking still larger questions about how we – as UK citizens – might engage with our past actions as a part of being in our present. The work Imitating the Dog have produced is messy, layered and fractured, both stitched together and falling apart at the seams. While by no means perfect, there presentation of Heart of Darknessis richly engaging and beautifully presented.
Heart of Darkness was on at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow from 7-9 March. It tours the UK until 11 May.